As I looked up and down the Street at Historic Deerfield’s 2013 Undergraduate Summer Fellows reunion, I thought to myself, “Hey, would you look at that! Nothing here has changed in nine years!” A corrective thought came crowding in immediately: “Of course it hasn’t. That’s the whole idea!” Generations of college students have attended this branch of the Historic Deerfield’s educational efforts. Thanks to the museum’s efforts at historic preservation, we can come back to town and feel at home—among other, more historically important results, of course.
My life has shifted radically since 2004, when I was a 21-year-old piling into the van to go on museum field trips with my tutor and fellow students. After Deerfield, I was lucky enough to win a paid internship in conservation at Colonial Williamsburg. There I learned such unusual skills as disassembling and reassembling a flintlock rifle or balancing on a ladder while dusting valuable Staffordshire figurines. From Virginia, I headed to the Midwest and earned my MA in American history at the University of Chicago. Now I am employed as an editorial assistant at the University of Chicago Press, where I help edit and manage the American Journal of Sociology. I also moonlight as a freelance editor specializing in academic work and museums.
While over ten years I have grown from a student to a professional, my core interests have remained the same. What shapes people’s lives, and how do they feel about it? The irony of studying history is that the very thing historians and history buffs, in their heart of hearts, want the most—to simply speak with the dead—is the least possible. But that’s where the interest comes from, too. And perhaps learning from the collection of an institution like Historic Deerfield is really the closest we can come to such a conversation.
Ironically, sometimes one of the hardest things for historians to spot is not change, but continuity. Not so with the Deerfield fellowship program. As I spoke with fellow fellows last summer, I realized that the museum has strived for—and maintained—a remarkable amount of tradition, even down to the presence of (founding curator) Peter Spang. And I’m confident that nearly all of us can say, like me, that the skills the program cultivates have helped us through many phases of our careers: writing, researching, critical thinking. But perhaps most important has been a more general recognition that the past, though it continues to shape our present lives, is fragile. Former fellows, staff, and other friends of the museum must work hard to preserve history—even when we’re not standing on Deerfield’s carefully preserved Street.